A Whitewater teenager is still recovering from severe burns he sustained during an accident in shop class last November.
Whitewater High School senior Andrew Rollette said the incident occurred while he was working in technology education teacher Mike Wintz’s shop class.
Rollette and his mother Jeannine Volbright recounted the incident.
“I was running an angle grinder and sparks were hitting my shirt,” he said.
Rollette said his shirt contained polyester, a fiber which is normally flame-retardant, but can ignite when it is subjected to a high enough temperature.
When his shirt caught on fire, Rollette said he attempted to extinguish the flames by dropping to the floor and rolled around, which only resulted in the fire growing.
Wintz, a long-time instructor at the school, was not immediately aware of the accident, as he was in a different part of the shop. But a second shop teacher, Cody Watson, helped extinguish the flame with water.
Volbright said a Whitewater High School administrator called her, instead of an ambulance, to pick her son up and take him to the hospital.
“That’s a phone call you don’t want to get, as a parent,” she said.
Volbright said she raced her son to Fort Memorial Hospital, but from there he was transferred to the UW Hospital Burn Unit in Madison.
Hospital stay, surgeries
Rollette and his family soon learned he had suffered third-degree burns on 12% of his body. The burns were mainly along the left side of his chest, back and underneath his left armpit.
When doctors monitored Rollette, they determined he needed skin graft surgery, which resulted in a two-and-a-half-week hospital stay. Rollette went back for a follow-up surgery last week to have further skin graft surgery.
Wintz went on extended leave following the accident.
“He left [shortly] after and then didn’t come back for a while,” Rollette said. When a couple weeks passed, he and other students began to wonder what happened to their shop teacher.
“Everyone just thought he had left early for deer season,” Rollette said.
Shop teacher retires
After her son’s initial release from the hospital, Volbright said members of the Whitewater School District informed her an investigation into the incident was conducted.
“They told us they had done an investigation and that they had looked at every tool in the shop,” Volbright said.
However, she said she was told the findings of the investigation by school officials—including Superintendent Caroline Pate-Hefty and Principal Mike Lovenberg—could not be shared with her.
While she did not fault Wintz for the accident, Volbright was initially skeptical of the details surrounding it.
“As a parent, of course, there are questions [I have],” she said. “I don’t know anything about shop class, I don’t know about using a grinder and what kind of safety things were supposed to be happening. So we questioned things.”
Volbright and other parents of technology education students later learned, in an email, that Wintz had retired. Wintz made his retirement official in a Dec. 13 letter.
Pate-Hefty confirmed Wintz retired on that date but declined to comment further “as it pertains to a personnel matter,” she wrote in an email.
Online petition supports Wintz
In the weeks since Wintz’s retirement, supporters of the shop teacher have raised concern that he may have been unfairly held responsible for the accident.
An online petition on Change.org—which had garnered nearly 2,000 signatures as of Tuesday—isn’t intended by its unnamed authors to return Wintz to his teaching position. “It was ... made to show the support we have for a great teacher that impacted so many of the students at Whitewater High School,” according to the petition description.
Aside from all shop class students being required to wear safety glasses, Rollette said safety protocols were relatively lax.
Rollette said he’s been accused of “not listening to Mr. Wintz” and “doing something [I] shouldn’t have.”
“But he’s a teacher that I respect greatly [and] I wouldn’t do that,” Rollette said.
His mother shared her son’s frustrations that people are looking for someone to blame.
“Unfortunately, because it’s a personnel issue, the school is not releasing any details about the incident or anything, really,” Volbright said. “He was one of Andrew’s favorite teachers.”
She added that Wintz went “above and beyond” with his students. “I could tell that he genuinely cared about kids and Andrew in particular,” Volbright said.
Calls seeking comment from both shop teachers, Wintz and Watson, were not returned.
This story was updated to reflect the spelling of Andrew Rollette's last name, as well as the name of the burn unit in Madison.